My process of concocting fiction from fact is based upon immersion. The research habits I follow now are identical to the ones I used when performing in period plays. I frequently worked with a director who required his actors to create a complete and detailed character profile for each and every role. And because I had parts in plays from Shakespeare to Moliere to the Restoration to Sheridan's 18th century comedies of manners to Chekhov's Russia to World War I, research into past times was essential. Digging into social history, biography, and fashion history became second nature.
On stage I was also wearing the clothes, whether restrictive (corsets!) and billowing (full skirts), learning how to move and to speak. (I still sometimes have occasion to dress in period costume, as the recent photo indicates!)
As a scholar of the Tudor, Stuart, and Georgian eras, I regularly sought information in libraries and special collections and art galleries.
I continue to haunt the most renowned research institutions--the British Library, the Public Record Office, the Folger Library, and so many more, studying orginal documents and such primary sources as manuscripts, prints, and maps. But my interest is no longer purely academic. I'm seeking facts as foundation to my story world, and everything I learn is filtered through my imagination. As novelist, I have a license to make things up.
For Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, I had the advantage of personal experience working on film sets. In addition, I could access several significant published biographies, her filmography, a book about her invention, several documentary films, interviews with her children, autobiographies of her co-inventor George Antheil, and of one of her husbands. I trawled through reminiscences of the actors, directors, producers, publicists, writers, and photographers who worked with Hedy or encountered her. The richest primary sources were the newspapers and fan magazines that documented her rise to stardom and her impact. Some of the most interesting facts contained in my fictional work are those that either eluded her biographies, or which they considered less interesting than I did. For Hedy’s life in Austria I relied on contemporaneous press accounts and histories of the pre-Anschluss era, and memoirs written by people she knew when living there.
The greatest visual records of Hedy Lamarr are the multitude of glamor portraits and her films. I repeatedly watched the ones that fit within the framework of my novel. It was like being back in my graduate film studies classes, with out having to write a thesis--and no grades!
A Pledge of Better Times resulted from my fascination with a particular portrait of a lady in the King's Dining Room at Hampton Court Palace. On return visits over many years, I was always drawn to that same portrait. To put it quite simply, I felt a connection.
Some time later, the family genealogist provided me with a lengthy and detailed pedigree chart and a narrative. One section dealt with my de Vere forbears, and my eye lighted on a sentence stating that Lady Diana de Vere, heiress of the 20th and last Earl of Oxford, had married Charles Beauclerk, the first Duke of St Albans, the son of King Charles II by actress Nell Gwyn. I realized two things at once—this was the lady of the portrait, and apparently I am related to her--very distantly. And, as it turned out, to her husband as well.
I’ve walked past the spot where she was likely born. I’ve stood in the royal chapel at Windsor Castle where she was most definitely laid to rest. I know more about her portraits than any human on the planet. I’ve read many accounts of her written by others. I know she liked flower gardens, and that her horse-loving husband bought a mare for her, so she must have enjoyed riding with him. But the only direct communication I had from Diana herself comes in the words of her last will and testament—words she composed several years before she died, as she distributed her money, property, jewellery, and other treasures to family members.
Over many years, after long hours in the British Library and the London Metropolitan Archive (where the Beauclerk family records reside) and many other places, I was able to piece together her story and that of her soldier husband, a royal bastard, and her courtier father and the queen in whose household she served. I visited and re-visiting the places she and her husband knew well and lived in—Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Bestwood Park near Nottingham. In Windsor, I visited the site of their mansion (many times) and received permission to enter the private chapel where the Duchess was laid to rest at the end of her long life. I discovered two unknown portraits of her, also by Godfrey Kneller, and one of her husband. I became acquainted with and corresponded with their descendants.
My fascination with a portrait, first seen when I was a teenager, took me on an amazing historical and creative journey.